By Jim Sabataso
This week I’m kicking off part one of my recap of the best television of 2016. Keep in mind this is by no means a definitive list; there are other great shows out there — “Halt and Catch Fire,” “Rectify” — that, for one reason or another, got by me this year. So without further ado, here is my list of 2016’s best dramas.
‘The Americans’ (FX)
Season four of “The Americans” saw the Jennings family facing threats from all sides as facades crumbled, allegiances shifted and Cold War tensions escalated. Increasingly disillusioned by their work, Philip and Elizabeth faced the dilemma of choosing between loyalty to their country and the safety of their family. Matthew Rhys and Kerri Russell continue to do stellar work as one of TV’s most complex and nuanced couples. This season was also a standout for Holly Taylor’s Paige, who continues to reckon with her parents’ true nature as Soviet spies. Child characters often can be a drag, but Taylor has become a great asset to the series. Part of those kudos go to showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, who write every character on this show with great care and thought, allowing them to grow over the course of the series. As it enters the home stretch — there are only two seasons left — “The Americans” seems poised to continue to deliver some of TV’s most high-stakes stories.
‘American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson’ (FX)
On paper, a dramatic retelling of the O.J. Simpson trial by “American Horror Story” creator Ryan Murphy seemed like a campy disaster in the making. In execution, the miniseries was a compelling and fascinating account of one of history’s most sensational trials. From spot-on casting — including superlative (and award-winning) performances by Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark and Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran — to deft and restrained storytelling courtesy of showrunners Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the series was a surprise masterpiece. Paulson’s careful portrayal of Clark humanized and redeemed a public figure who had been tormented by media scrutiny and sexism. Meanwhile, Sterling K. Brown’s slow-burn take on prosecutor Christopher Darden grappled with the complex racial tensions at the heart of the trial.
‘Game of Thrones’ (HBO)
Liberated from the constraints of the George R.R. Martin books it is based on, “Game of Thrones” took flight in season six, as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss charted their own course. This was by far the series’ most narratively satisfying season, with much less wheel spinning and superfluous side stories. Mysteries were solved, enemies were vanquished and, for a brief moment, it looked like the good guys could actually win this thing. But let’s not get too excited. After the events of this season, the kingdom of Westeros is teetering on collapse. Cersei’s machinations may have helped restore her to power with explosive severity, but she is now on a collision course with the North, again united under the Stark banner. That conflict will only be complicated when Queen Daenerys arrives to retake the Iron Throne with her massive army of outsiders. Meanwhile, all hell is set to break loose beyond the Wall as the white walkers continue to advance southward. The season was also a triumph for female characters, many of whom made big moves for power, further upsetting the status quo of the show’s universe. More of this storytelling in the final two seasons, please.
‘Horace and Pete’ (louisck.net)
Louis CK quietly released “Horace and Pete” on his website earlier this year without much fanfare. The series was an experiment in independent distribution, which didn’t totally pan out — CK reportedly took a bath financially on the gambit. The show itself, however, was a tense, moving and, at times, massively uncomfortable examination of humanity’s uglier aspects against the backdrop of a family-owned Brooklyn dive bar. Staged like a play, with actors on a simply designed set, the series relies on the performances of it actors. Fortunately, the cast, including CK, Alan Alda, Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, Aidy Bryant, Jessica Lange and Laurie Metcalf, is more than game. To be fair, this series exists somewhere between drama and comedy — there are some solid comedic moments — but much of the show’s material is so heavy that I decided to count it as a drama.
‘Stranger Things’ (Netflix)
This show. This frigging show. I don’t like nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. Sure, I’m a sucker for the fuzzy comfort of warm memories as much as anyone else, but I try to reject it when it’s lazily or cheaply deployed as a substitute for original storytelling. “Stranger Things” is not that thing. The series succeeds because is takes elements of 1980s horror and science fiction films and remixes them into something fresh and unique. It’s also spooky, weird and damn scary at times. Sure, there are tropes — and more Easter eggs than you can count — but the Duffer Brothers have created something so fascinating and downright delightful that it all works. From references to the Upside-down and Eggo waffles to ubiquitous Halloween costumes (including mine), the series became part of the zeitgeist in 2016. #JusticeForBarb
Honorable mention: “Better Call Saul,” “Orange is the New Black,” “Luke Cage,” “Westworld,” “11.22.63,” “American Crime,” “The Path”